Santa Maria Antiqua, reborn

Once literally, now figuratively buried in the architectural mass of the Palatine Hill in Rome, lies a little church that is a gem of eighth century artistic expression. Buried in an earthquake in 847, it was rediscovered in 1900 with its frescoes more or less intact. The ensuing century has not been necessarily kind to the structure, with many of the ailments common to historic structures and artworks manifesting themselves. However, the church is a World Heritage Site, and conservators have been at work for decades to restore and protect the paintings. Best of all, particularly for my legions of Italian readers, the church is open now until 11 September, 2016, after undergoing decades of restoration.

Interior of the church

The Palatine Hill is one of the famous seven hills of Rome, and the one where several of the emperors made their residence. During the years of late antiquity, as the empire disintegrated, the Huns approached, and Christianity rose, a small church was created from a former guardroom, out of the walls and foundations of the west slope of the hill.1.Stalley, Early Medieval Architecture, p.24.

You approach through an open air atrium, pass through a large glass wall which was recently built, along with the roof, to preserve the structure. The inside of the church is spare, with three arches on either side that create left and right aisles. In front is a stout presbytery, with a semi-circular apse at the pinnacle of the church. The entire structure, except for the marble columns that divide the nave from the aisles, is made of brick.

A: Atrium, B: Presbytery, C: Apse, D: Chapel of Theodotus, E: Chapel of the medical saints, F: Central nave, G: Left aisle, H: Right aisle, I: Temple of Augustus, L: Ramp to Palatine hill, M: Oratory of the 40 martyrs

It is not for the architecture that the Santa Maria Antiqua is famous, but for the frescoes that adorn so many of the walls. There are up to six layers of adornments in some parts of the church, everything from the original Roman mosaics to the final eighth century frescoes from the time of Pope Hadrian I (772 -795). One of the walls near the apse is called the Palimpsest, so-called because a palimpsest is a manuscript that has been scraped clean and used anew. The Palimpsest wall wasn’t scraped clean, but it was used again and again, in seven layers from the fifth to the eighth century. The Superintendent for the Archaeological Heritage of Rome maintains an excellent website about the church (make sure you select the English version). There is a page called “The Stratigraphy of the Palimpsest” that includes a Flash presentation of the wall that illustrates the different layers that are visible.

There are two chapels on either side of the presbytery. To the left is the Chapel of Theodotus, who was the patron of the frescoes, which were painted during the reign of Zacharias (741 – 752). The chapel includes scenes of the patron in front of saints, and panels depicting various martyred saints. Some of the frescoes were detached from the walls for preservation, but are now back on display in the chapel.

The other chapel is smaller, a square chamber entered through small doorways. The Chapel of the Medical Saints is covered with images of saints who healed the sick and injured without the use of medicine. The idea was to provide a space for the sick to pray for healing, surrounded by the inspirational imagery.

Two of the ‘medical saints,’ with Greek inscriptions. This pic also gives a good idea of the state of decay of the images throughout the church.

There are records of the church in the Lives of the Popes. The life of John VII (705 – 707) specifically mentions frescoes. “He adorned with painting the basilica of the holy mother of God which is called Antiqua, and there he built a new ambo, … He provided an excellent gold chalice weighing 20 lb and decorated it with jewels.”2.Book of Pontiffs, bk.88, ch.2, p.86.

There are several mentions of the church in the life of Leo III (795 – 816). Leo’s life is a veritable catalog of all the treasures that he sent to churches in Rome and elsewhere. For the Santa Maria Antiqua he provided “…in the deaconry Antiqua, cross-adorned silk cloths with a fringe.” “…over the high altar a canopy of fine silver weighing 212 lb.” “…silver crown, 13 lb.” “… 4 all-silk crimson veils to cover all four sides, adorned all round with fourfold-woven silk.”3.Liber Pontificalis, bk.98, ch.45 p.200, ch.52 p.203, ch.70 p.209, ch.83 p.219. Needless to say, the chalice nor any of the other treasures have survived.

While this little church will never be mistaken for Chartres or St. Peters, it is a precious jewel of early medieval artistic expression. Go see it if you can.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Stalley, Early Medieval Architecture, p.24.
2. Book of Pontiffs, bk.88, ch.2, p.86.
3. Liber Pontificalis, bk.98, ch.45 p.200, ch.52 p.203, ch.70 p.209, ch.83 p.219.

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